Students MIA during synchronous sessions: What’s it Mean?

teacher dashThe synchronous session in an online class is essential for building community among the students and for strengthening the relationship between the student and the teacher.

I know this.

And now you know this.

But my students…. Do they know this?broccoli 2
Maybe they know these sessions are beneficial the way they know eating vegetables is good for them: it’s something that doesn’t seem appealing but they’ll do it regardless because it’s healthy or because their parents make them.

But maybe they don’t think the sessions are beneficial?

What does it mean when students don’t attend a live help session with the online instructor? How does their choice not to participate redefine my role as an instructor? What does their choice say about their motivation for taking a course online, and what does it reveal about where they believe knowledge comes from?

To tackle these questions, I want to first look at students’ motivations for enrolling in an online course, first mine, and then what researchers have found with other students. Their reasons influence their learning goals and their means to reach those goals.

My Class

Students enroll in my 8th grade Language Arts course for a variety of reasons. Online learning frees up their schedule so that they can pursue other interests, such as gymnastics or horseback riding. Other students report online learning provides a safe-haven from the bullying they encountered at their local schools. Still others find their local schools unacceptable, like the school is low-performing or the student and/or parents found the environment too negative. And then sometimes health issues can cause students to miss many days at school, so online learning helps students by letting them work at home when they feel well-enough to do so.

So far, zero students have taken my class to get ahead academically or to pursue literary interests. Rather, online learning is something they can do to meet a requirement. Essentially, they all say, “I need this course because I need to have taken and to have passed eighth grade Language Arts.”

But what about other students?

Earlier this year the nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow released their findings from the annual Speak Up National Research Project. This year’s report, “Digital Learning 24/7,” emphasizes students’ desire to take online courses. It states, “Students are increasingly interested in an online learning environment. While only 8 percent of high school students indicated a preference for a fully online learning experience in 2013, 24 percent of the high school students in the 2014 Speak Up polling declared that they wish they could take all of their classes online” (10).

The survey does not ask about a student’s motivation for taking online courses, but it does ask two related questions:

  • “If you could take a fully online or virtual class in any school subject, what subjects would you like to take online? (check all that apply)”
  • “How important do you think it is for every student to take a fully online or virtual class before graduating from high school?”

From these questions, the researchers drew conclusions about what subjects students wanted to take online and how they valued the experience, but not student’s initial motivation for enrolling. box 3 eduThe researchers found, “Students are particularly interested in taking an online class in their core subjects of Math, English, Science, and Social Studies/History” (10).

The report then shifts to discussing what technology online students use, and how online students use a variety of technology tools to learn and communicate with their teachers. Duh. Students learning on a digital platform are forced to use more technology, and the fact that they are participating in a virtual class already suggests that these students perceive technology as beneficial to learning. The survey’s findings support this conclusion: “a majority of the students in online learning classes agree that every student should have an online learning experience to prepare them for the demands of college and future jobs, underscoring the value to their own education of a virtual learning environment” (11). Again, this isn’t surprising. Students who choose online learning find it beneficial and would be more likely to suggest it to others. Students 6-12 as a whole, however, “have a lukewarm response” to the suggestion that all students should enroll in an online course before graduating and that enrollment should be a graduation requirement.

The Speak Up 2014 report certainly offers some insights about the virtual student’s learning experience, but it does not address why students want to take core classes, or why students would recommend online learning for others. The fact that students would want to take their core classes online suggests they want to get the courses out of the way for other activities or to free-up their schedules at their local school for other specialized courses. My personal experience finds this true.

Flexible, Home Delivery, Order Online!

Another research study, “Experiences of Middle and High School Students in Online Learning,” comes closer to answering the question of what motivates students to take courses online by asking what students like about online learning.

figure 6

“Overall, most participants indicated they most liked the following aspects about online learning: flexibility, learning on their own, staying home for school, and working online (see Figure 6).”

Again, students seem to pursue online learning as an answer to a problem:

  • The need for a more flexible schedule.
  • The need to be isolated or removed from the local school environment.
  • The need to have an individual say over their learning.

Students in online courses do make sacrifices. The research states, “Additionally, participants’ responses to “What do you miss about the traditional setting?” were diverse, ranging from 0.7% missing special education services to 25.7% missing having recess or time to hang out with friends.”

Although online learning has been around for more than a decade in some form, large-scale adoption by school districts is relatively new, and there is a dearth of research about students’ motivation for choosing online learning. Perhaps a better way of learning why students take online courses would be to examine what other types of IRL (in real life) chores people delegate to a digital platform.

Avoid inconvenience and save time

Increasingly, people pay bills online, manage accounts, pay taxes, purchase movie tickets, and sometimes buy groceries; tasks we don’t want to waste time doing. Many of the podcasts I listen to are sponsored by, where “you can buy and print official U.S. Postage without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home.” Each podcast tailors this pitch to their audience. Here’s an example from the podcast Night Vale:

Tired of waiting in line at the Post Office? Scared of the unexplained blood pouring from the P.O. Boxes? Confused by screams that no one else hears? Terrified of leaving your home? Try

With, you can print your own postage and avoid the long lines and predatory birds so common at the Post Office. You can even have your postal carrier pick up your packages, as long as you are careful never to look the carrier in the eyes, as this is a sign of aggression and you may scare your postal carrier away.

The ads argues that by using, people can avoid inconvenience and save time; a digital solution to an IRL problem.

Or take’s Dash Buttons: “Dash Button lets you replenish products immediately without needing to be reminded and allows you to save time by skipping the search process for your exact product.” Similar to, the Dash Button saves time and helps the customer avoid inconvenience. What types of products do customers want to avoid going out to the store to purchase? Laundry detergent, garbage bags, diapers, razor blades and food staples of the middle class (energy bars and Smart Water). Products people need for their household to run smoothly; in a way, requirements.

box 4The Subscription Box

Last week, The New York Times business section ran a story about another consumer trend: the subscription box.

A growing community of eager shoppers seeking both the convenience and surprise that every regular delivery brings are flocking to the concept, paving the way for ever-more-eclectic and specialized offerings.

Subscription box services advertise monthly boxes filled with personalized selections to meet an individual’s needs. Inside they contain everything you need to dress yourself (Trunk Club), cook a family meal (Blue Apron), entertain your kids (Little Passports), or stock the office with snacks (NatureBox). Here’s a description of what the customer can expect from Birchbox, but it could describe many such boxes:

“Each box is individually customized and comes with educational content on how to use the products.”

Now compare to that line to a popular nation-wide online school’s description of its services on its website:

We have become a leader in providing individualized, one-to-one learning solutions to students from kindergarten through high school across the country. These solutions have literally changed lives and opened up possibility for many children. Our biggest fans continue to be parents who are seeking to tap into their children’s unique potential and who have seen what can happen when children can work at the right pace and with the tools, approaches, and content that make learning come alive.

For K12 education, much of online learning is a subscription box. Sign-up your students and they get access to all of the tools they need to learn. It’s personalized and tailored. Each course comes with a teacher who works with the student to manage assignments and content. As soon as you sign-up, you get access to a website containing everything you need to learn. It’s all right there.

No hassle.


Without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home.

box 1 edu

So, honestly, it shouldn’t surprise me when students don’t attend a synchronous session. These sessions are outside-of-the-box. Although I promise to help students learn the content in the course and offer review games and discussions, because the sessions are not inside the learning management system, inside the content management system, inside individual modules/units, I am not indispensable. I am superfluous. I am the 1-800 number you call when your soufflé from Blue Apron collapses. I am the help desk you chat with when the “educational content on how to use the products” is unclear or missing.

And yet, I refuse to be this.

And, I’m not it for all students. Every semester, there are a couple students who eat their vegetables and attend my synchronous sessions. God bless them. They do better than most in my class. Is this because they attend or is their attendance a sign of their effort in the course? There’s no way to really tell.

So, what’s the answer?

Do we allow teachers to become content managers, “sourcing suppliers, fielding customer questions and complaints, marketing, managing inventory, packing boxes.” Few teachers would agree to this. We are more valuable than this, certainly.

The problem is not that online learning is flexible or available from home. The problem is that online learning looks too much like a closed system. I suspect that the students who don’t attend synchronous sessions are using my course like a Dash Button. They need more Language Arts, and here they can push a button and refill their requirement. Everything is automatic. Naturally, they do the work within the course (box), but it’s still prepacked. The course’s design is predetermined, and it requires little input or investment from the learner.

"Contains: Nothing" by Tristan Ferne from Flickr.

“Contains: Nothing” by Tristan Ferne from Flickr.

What we need to do in online learning is provide empty boxes. Containers for learning, which students can fill with their own content. Then these online courses become relevant and transferable and transformative.

And if students are responsible for filling their own box, then their teachers quit becoming content managers but instead personal shoppers offering expert advice and suggestions for what the student might find interesting. And feedback. Teachers and students become learning partners.

Additional Research

de la Varre, C., Keane, J., & Irvin, M. J. (2011). Enhancing Online Distance Education in Small Rural US Schools: A Hybrid, Learner-Centred Model. Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 15(4), 35-46. Retrieved from

Rubin, B., & Fernandes, R. (2013). Measuring the Community in Online Classes. Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(3), 115-136. Retrieved from

Velasquez, A., Graham, C. R., & Osguthorpe, R. (2013). Caring in a Technology-Mediated Online High School Context. Distance Education, 34(1), 97-118. doi: 10.1080/01587919.2013.770435

Diana. (2014). Building student trust in online learning environments. Distance Education, 35 (3), 345-359. doi: 10.1080/01587919.2015.955267

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